by Sue B. Walker

CHAPTER 14: 

TRAVELS WITH HUMBOLDT – CHAPTER 14: GOING IN CIRCLES

Well Alexander does get around – and when we encounter him in Chapter 14 of The Invention of Nature, he is on a stagecoach en route from Paris to London.  It is September 14, 1818.

Are we glad we don’t travel by stagecoach?  And I remember when folks went by the Dew Drop Inn and picked up their famous hotdogs on the way to the airport – a different kind of dog in airports these days.  And we do prefer Delta to a stagecoach.

But let us think of Fame.  Humboldt was so famous that his arrival was announced in the column, “Fashionable Arrivals” in London papers!

And his intentions re traveling to India brought queries and suspicions.  The French police thought he carried a detailed report about rebelling colonies. I have almost finished Michael Ondaatje’s novel Warlight – the time just after WWII – and an account of postwar activities and espionage. Oh to write such poetic prose as Ondaatje – but no, it is 1818 – and Humboldt has India on his mind.  And his friend, Karl Sigmund Kunth was going to accompany on the journey.  Bonplandt was no longer available.

Alas, Bonplandt was imprisoned.  And Humboldt’s plans were thwarted. The East India Company refused him entry into India. Ok, so he would turn his back on Europe and move to Mexico – but Wilhelm said “Alexander always envisages things as being he, and then not even half of it happens.”

Still Humbold had his supporters!  Read’s like a British Who’s Who!  And who other than the famous chemist Humphry Davy, John Hershel, the son of the astronomer, William Hershel, and Charles Babbage, known today as the father of the computer.  And imagine working that into a conversation when the subject is computers – and saying casually:  “Well, you know, Steve Jobs may have been instrumental in founding the Apple Computer – but had it not been for Charles Babbage.”  Perhaps they are, Humboldt and Charles Babbage, sitting at a dinner table on Gold Street some six miles or so north of the Pearly Gates taking about inventions.  “Who would have thought?” Babbage says, and Humboldt replies:  “Great minds must gather together. Let’s have a conference!” “And invite William Buckland, the Oxford geologist, Albert Gallatin, said to be the founder of American ethnology, the naturalist, George Cuvier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Charles Lyell, the Britisher whose work influenced Darwin.  And he is not to be left out either – Darwin.

“Hoombowl, Hoombowl,” a voice shouts.
“Who is that Humboldt asks?”
“Oh,” Babbage says.  “That’s Lyell.  Voices break the sound barriers here in the Beyond – and since time is not concern for us now – we can be here or there or anywhere in a whisper.”

PROMPT  inserted here:  So why not write a narrative – a scene – Who would say what to whom? 

All you need is a writing instrument – a pen, a pencil, an I-Pad, a cellphone.  Thanks Steve Jobs.  Why don’t you ask some near contemporaries.    I have never been asked what it is – but Humboldt invented isotherms – “the lines we see on weather maps today that connect different geographical points around the globe that are experiencing the same temperatures.”            I rather feel like the 5th grader who, when asked about thunder and lightening, said:  “You can listen to thunder after lightening and tell how close you came to getting hit.  If you don’t hear it, you got hit, so never mind.”  Verstehen Sie?  Well, even if I don’t understand, I like the lingo:  “Vergleichende Klimatologie.”

Humboldt-Delight:  Meeting the engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel who invited Humboldt to see the construction of the first tunnel under the Thames.  Brunel and Humboldt, inside a diving bell that weighed almost 2 tons, were dropped 36 feet into the Thames.  The water pressure ruptured blood vessels in Humboldt’s nose and throat.

(The construction of the Bankhead Tunnel in Mobile took place from 1938-1940. )